New York Times and Washington Post confuse public with coverage of EPA endangerment finding

Two of the top climate reporters in the country, the Post‘s Juliet Eilperin and the NYT’s Andy Revkin, have written articles on EPA’s endangerment finding that I think are quite confusing and misleading.

Eilperin’s piece, the front page story in today’s Post, isEPA Says Emissions Are Threat To Public:  Finding Could Lead to Greenhouse Gas Limits.”  An otherwise pretty solid article contains this inaccurate and highly misleading third paragraph:

What happens next is unclear. The agency’s proposed finding is likely to intensify pressure on Congress to pass legislation that would limit greenhouse gases, as President Obama, many lawmakers and some industry leaders prefer. But cap-and-trade legislation, which would limit emissions and allow emitters to trade pollution allowances, is fiercely opposed by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats from fossil-fuel-dependent Midwestern states who fear that such a system would raise energy prices and hurt the nation’s economy.

Huh?  First off, cap-and-trade is fiercely opposed by virtually all Congressional Republicans from everywhere in the country (with the possible exception of Maine) — see “House GOP pledge to fight all action on climate” and “”Hill conservatives reject all 3 climate strategies and embrace Rush Limbaugh.”

And while many GOPers do repeat dubious talking points about the economic impact(see “MIT Professor tells GOP to stop ‘misrepresenting’ his work and inflating the cost to families of cap-and-trade by a factor of 10“), a large fraction simply deny the overwhelming science that makes clear global warming is a grave but preventable threat to the health and welfare of Americans.

So the GOP half of Eilperin’s final sentence above is just misleading.

Second, I just don’t think it is accurate to say “cap-and-trade legislation … is fiercely opposed by … Democrats from fossil-fuel-dependent Midwestern states.”  There’s no question that many Midwestern Democrats have concerns about cap-and-trade (see “Moderate Senate Dems build ‘Gang of 16″² to influence cap-and-trade bill“).  And those concerns may well translate into provisions that water down the final bill.  But to create the impression that a significant number of Midwestern Democrats fiercely oppose cap-and-trade outright is misleading.  I expect a cap-and trade bill will pass Congress in the next 12 to 15 months — with the support of most midwestern Dems.

Small note to Eilperin re phrase “fossil-fuel-dependent Midwestern states”:  All states are currently fossil fuel dependent.  All states are addicted to oil and other fossil fuels, which, as EPA found, threatens our health and well-being.

Revkin’s blog post on the finding is even more confusing to the public, starting with the headline and opening lines:

CO2 = Pollution. Now What?

It’s nearly official. Carbon dioxide, the bubbles in beer, is a pollutant in the context of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed on Friday.

Uhh, no.  The Supreme Court made it official that carbon dioxide was a pollutant two years ago in the landmark April 2007 Massachusetts versus EPA ruling.  The majority report found that “greenhouse gases fit well within the Clean Air Act’s capacious definition of air pollutant.”

So CO2 = Pollution is old news and fully official.

Others at the NYT may be confused about this, as Revkin writes:

As John Broder wrote recently in The Times, it’s likely that the move to apply the “pollutant” label to these gases is aimed at adding pressure to congressional efforts to write new gas-limiting legislation.

And this confusion has spread — try googling “EPA says carbon dioxide a pollutant” [in quotation marks], which is the misleading headline for Broder’s piece today on the finding that is widely used (thought not by the NYT itself).

For the record, what is “nearly official” is the EPA finding that greenhouse gases pose a threat to public health and welfare.  Friday’s big news was, after all, just a “proposed finding,” as EPA explains:

The proposed endangerment finding now enters the public comment period, which is the next step in the deliberative process EPA must undertake before issuing final findings.

Finally, Revkin piece ends with this incomplete anecdote:

Over all, carbon dioxide and climate remain a very tough fit for the legislative and legal arenas. This reality was on display during Supreme Court arguments in November 2006 that laid the legal foundation for today’s announcement. Confusion arose over which layer of the atmosphere was the repository for smokestack and tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide. James Milkey, assistant attorney general of Massachusetts, corrected Justice Antonin Scalia, saying: “Respectfully, Your Honor, it is not the stratosphere. It’s the troposphere.”

“Troposphere, whatever,” Justice Scalia replied. “I told you before I’m not a scientist.” Over a brief flutter of laughter from observers, he added, “That’s why I don’t want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth.”

Well, carbon dioxide and climate remain a tough fit for uber-conservative lawmakers and judges who have either ignored the issue or been infused with misinformation by the conservative-led disinformation campaign.

I discussed how ignorant Scalia and his fellow conservative justices are in a 2008 Salon piece, “No climate for old men“:

Last year, the conservative justices almost thwarted the majority in the landmark Massachusetts v. EPA case, in which the court decided 5-4 that the EPA has the authority and responsibility to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Justice Scalia, in his dissent (joined by Roberts, Thomas and Alito), argues that “carbon dioxide [and other greenhouse gases in the upper reaches of the atmosphere], which is alleged to be causing global climate change,” is in fact not an air pollutant. All four conservative justices accept and repeat almost all of the EPA’s laughable arguments. In one example, the conservative justices point out that the majority offers this requirement:

“If,” the court says, “the scientific uncertainty is so profound that it precludes EPA from making a reasoned judgment as to whether greenhouse gases contribute to global warming, EPA must say so.” Scalia and company continue that the “EPA has said precisely that — and at great length, based on information contained in a 2001 report by the National Research Council (NRC).”

Although the NRC report — which is over 6 years old now — does talk about uncertainties, it opens by saying bluntly:

Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities… “The IPCC’s conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue.

No rational person could possibly cite the NRC report as evidence that “the scientific uncertainty is so profound” that the EPA can’t make a “reasoned judgment as to whether greenhouse gases contribute to global warming.” The fact that Scalia, Roberts, Thomas and Alito swallow all of the Bush EPA’s absurd arguments without question is clear evidence that, like many conservatives, they are not open to rational argument or scientific evidence on matters related to climate change.

While climate is a complicated subject and even the most informed people sometimes make uninformed or confusing statements — including top  climate journalists (!) — it is mostly conservative justices and conservative politicians who make the outrageous statements that are instantly mockable [see, for instance, Rep. Shimkus: Cutting CO2 emissions is “Taking away plant food from the atmosphere” and Rep. Barton: Climate change is ‘natural,’ humans should just ‘get shade’ “” invites ‘expert’ TVMOB (!) to testify.]

The willful ignorance of the conservatives does not, however, mean we should just throw up our hands and say:

Over all, carbon dioxide and climate remain a very tough fit for the legislative and legal arenas.

I confess I don’t understand Revkin’s point in writing that.  How else could we possibly address carbon dioxide and climate if not in the “legislative and legal arenas”?  Where else does it “fit”?  He certainly can’t be suggesting we ignore it.

Rather than criticizing others for their lack of understanding, I think our top climate journalists should devote more effort into explaining things … accurately.

26 Responses to New York Times and Washington Post confuse public with coverage of EPA endangerment finding

  1. Bill Woods says:

    Revkin’s point is that air pollution can be dealt with, e.g. by banning lead in gasoline or mandating catalytic converters or smokestack scrubbers. Reducing CO2 emissions is a whole ‘nother thing.

  2. Sasparilla says:

    Its very sad, but Revkin may as well be actively on the payroll for some of the hundreds of millions that Exxon (and the rest of the fossil fuel industry) spends every year to prop up the denier / delayer groups. His articles give the impression of confusion in the climate arena and the appearance that nothing is for sure – just what the fossil fuel industry and their PR campaigns are getting payed for.

  3. Bill Woods says:

    Likewise, if a species is endangered by development, the government can say “don’t build there”, or “don’t take so much water out of the river”. There’s nothing of that sort that can be done for the polar bear.

  4. Joel says:

    Having met with Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH, 9th district) only yesterday to talk about the ACES bill, I can definitely attest that cap-and-trade (or dividend/invest) is not out of the question for the Midwest. However, there is a large perception that this bill is being written by coastal (CA and MA) legislators who lack sensitivity to the Midwest’s economic situation. She also said she was skeptical of a scheme run by Wall Street trading principles, though to be honest I’m not informed enough on cap-and-trade to know what she even meant by that or counter the argument. I would not want to paint Representative Kaptur as a major obstacle, she has offered strong support for green jobs, but it will take a lot of energy and persistence from those of us in the Midwest to make the case that cap-and-trade, with the right use of revenue, does not need to overburden working class Americans. There were some really basic stats she seemed unaware of though (the number of jobs created by dollars spent in renewable energy over fossil fuel, the fact that there are now more wind jobs than coal-mining jobs), which leads me to believe that a concerted effort by well-educated and articulate constituents can do a lot to turn the tide, at least at the congressional level. Senators will be harder…

  5. hapa says:

    i like the idea that a public institution legally-bound to control pollutants would only classify a pollutant for the political advantage of people trying to classify it as a pollutant. how very inside-beltway, to compare climate breakdown with “reefer madness” or “niger yellowcake”.…

    methinks the national clerks have taken one too many field trips to versailles.

  6. I think we need better descriptions of the variety of BAU futures.

    Then Business As Usual cases can be described by science modeling. There are obviously different levels of BAU. It seems like a Republican BAU would be vastly increased CO2 levels – which is really not described well at all in any of the models.

    Perhaps if we had a BAU CO2 scenario well described then we might be able to better assign blame, er make that – make appropriate decisions.

  7. Susan says:

    Thanks! Just posted your extract from EPA website, which I feel should have been in the text of DotEarth article.

    I think you are a little hard on Andy, but it’s difficult to understand why he consistently bends to the center when I believe that’s not where he stands.

    OTOH, no denialist (and they carry the majority of the population with them by being persuasive about inaction) would visit ClimateProgress, but they do participate in DotEarth. Perhaps there is some benefit to exposing them to points of view they wouldn’t even bother to read else, and in refuting their garbage in a public forum.

    [JR: Well, that’s what RealClimate is for. People tell me they actually read the comments here because they are so useful and … free from disinformation.]

  8. Neil Howes says:

    This EPA statement has to be positive step in dealing with global warming.
    In an earlier post you asked the question:”Has the IPCC rendered itself irrelevant”
    you quote above from the NRC report:
    “The IPCC’s conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue.”
    seems to suggest that even if it’s not an accurate predictor of actual sea level rise, the report is very relevant to future GHG reductions.

    [JR: Not sure of your point. IPCC is useful when it’s timely. AR5 no longer is.]

  9. ecostew says:

    One should see innovative approaches to mitigating AGW as EPA proceeds. Also, NEPA-related mitigation of federal actions relative to AGW should prove productive.

  10. Bob Wright says:

    I think the articles are clear enough for general purposes. The adminisration has a finding that gives it a legal means to regulate GHG emissions. (They are working on an ocean acidification finding under the clean water act, too.)

    If Congress doesn’t craft new legislation, then the administration uses the older legislation. I see job security for environmetnal lawyers, and new fodder for Sean Hannity types, but this might give the administration a chance to roll out a nuts and bolts plan.

    If I was CEO of a large utility, should I take a couple numbers on the waiting list for those Japan Steel nuclear reactor forgings? They only put out a dozen or so per year.

    Ford, Honda and Toyota (the new Big 3?) are having a lively hybrid competiton. Good timing.

  11. ecostew says:

    The Obama Administration appears to be moving forward on the issue of securing our energy future while mitigating AGW, but “sustainable ethanol” and “clean coal” at this point have not been demonstrated.

  12. no name says:

    Joe, do you like any specific green/alternative energy funds or socially responsible funds to invest in? do you have any opinions on the subject.

    [JR: I don’t like anonymous posters. And I don’t give investment advice.]

  13. Modesty says:

    How bizarre. I wish Eilperin and Revkin would drop by to explain what they were thinking.

  14. Steve Bloom says:

    Susan: “(I)t’s difficult to understand why (Andy Revkin) consistently bends to the center when I believe that’s not where he stands.”

    There’s a history. Andy is searching for the “middle” in the climate “debate,” to the point where he often resorts to inventing one. It’s precisely where he wants to stand. It would be better if he could manage to stand there by himself without feeling the need to make room for the likes of Roger Pielke Jr. and the Breakthrough Institute, to say nothing of Newt Gingrich and Bjorn Lomborg.

    Much has been said about this, but for me the critical point is that what Andy tries to frame as the middle is not at all the middle of the science, noting that he is supposed to be, in the end, a science reporter.

  15. Ahmes says:

    “a very tough fit for the legislative and legal arenas” – i.e. these issues continue to endanger the wealth of a small group of people with undue influence on the legislative process.

    Some people deny because they are not convinced. Others deny because they can’t stomach the implications. And some deny because there is money in it. The last group hides behind the others (albeit not well – more of a fig leaf really) and we aren’t going to get anywhere until we can focus on the elephant in the room. Doing the right thing is a scenario that has losers, and those losers are in a position to resist doing the right thing until the bitter end.

  16. paulm says:

    This is very disappointing.

    Coming from a nation and a leader who has excellent advice available to him, it demonstrates how difficult it is to choose between power cuts and carbon cuts…


    PM stokes row with ‘clean’ coal plan

    Brown and Ed Miliband, his energy secretary, will argue that Britain urgently needs more coal-fired generating plants to prevent future power shortages as old plants are shut down.

  17. With respect to the quote from the Washington Post article:

    “a coalition of Republicans and Democrats from fossil-fuel-dependent Midwestern states”

    There’s some grammatical ambiguity, but I think one reasonable reading is that writer intended to describe a coalition of “Republicans” (full stop) and “Democrats from…Midwestern states,” rather than a coalition of “Republicans from Midwestern states” and “Democrats from Midwestern states.” So, it’s possible that the phrase was intended to convey a similar political analysis to the one you make.

  18. Pat Richards says:

    Too hard on Andy Revkin? I think Joe didn’t give him half what he deserved for *opening* his article on this landmark ruling with the line “Carbon dioxide, the bubbles in beer, is a pollutant in the context of the Clean Air Act…”

    Did he accurately describe CO2 as “the hundreds of millions of tons of gas emitted by tailpipes and smokestacks all over the world?” That would be accurate and informative to anyone who still didn’t get it. But no, Revkin chooses to make with zee little joke about zee bubbles in zee beer! Is funny, no?

    No. Is not funny. A report in the New York Times is NOT the place for such flippery. It not only minimizes the issue for the sake of a cheap laugh, it misdirects and confuses the Joe Six Packs of the world who will stop and think “What? The bubbles in my beer? The EPA and those environmentalist freaks are gonna make me drink flat beer now?!”

    I’m not being a humorless drudge here. There are people who will seriously think just that sort of nonsense and even more who will make cracks like that for their own purposes even though they know the bubbles in the beer are not the issue. For a front-page report on the most important issue of our time appearing in what is arguably one of the world’s most important newspapers, it’s incredibly poor work.

  19. Russ says:

    Pat, you’re not being a humorless drudge. The beer bubbles crack has indeed been a right wing punchline, as Andy must know.

    The MSM retrogression on this is weird. I’m convinced it has to do with the economic plight of newspapers.

  20. Steve Bloom says:

    FYI, Joe, I have two comments still in moderation (due to each having two links) since yesterday.

    [JR: Sorry. I only saw one, though. My new version of Word Press puts comments in moderation in a very slightly different color that I sometimes miss.]

  21. Jokes about beer — in the Newspaper of Record. Not journalism’s proudest moment. Laughing off the CO2 threat is a lot easier than taking arms against a sea of troubles. But pandering to the dittoheads?

    Other than conservation, which will feel good but be futile because India and China want more coal power, what can be done, anyway?

    There is simply no avoiding the fact that the world needs coal plants for reliable power, at least for the next 20 years. There is no scalable post-combustion capture and storage solution, although DOE pretends clean coal is shovel-ready, and on Dec. 18, 2008 DOE allocated $80 billion to 16 contractors, thereby drying up all possible funding for different solutions.

    Chemical capture is thwarted by the nitrogen ballast in the large volumes of hot and dirty flue gas, and sequestration (underground dumping) is lunacy. “Clean coal” is a hope, but is being treated as a reality so we can continue to enjoy cheap power in the USA.

    Solar and wind satisfy only about 1% of our power demand, and they are too intermittent to rely on. Nuclear? No way, because of the unsolved waste disposal issue. Concentrating solar is thwarted by the water waste in exhaust steam condensing. Water is precious in the desert where CSPs will be sited.

    Maybe Nero had the right idea — fiddling makes more sense than trying to put out the fire.

  22. David B. Benson says:

    Wilmot McCutchen — Burn biomass rather than fossil coal. Algae grows quickly and that can be either just dried and burned or first pyrolysized into biochar and pyrolysis oils for ease of transport.

  23. Neil Howes says:

    Wind is already at about 2% US electricity production and growing very quickly. No reason it cannot account for >25%, electricity, displacing >50% of coal.

  24. Andy Revkin says:

    To Joe’s complaint about “official” pollution: When the Court ruled in 4/2007, CO2 did not automatically or officially become anything new. The Court said the gas fits under EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act and only a scientific argument could nix that, no? The “official” designation remains the agency’s (and administration’s) responsibility under laws written by Congress, not the court’s.

    To those worried about my reference to the bubbles in beer, to me it’s essential to explore all the different framings of a problem (including those by enemies of this blog) — as a route to clarifying which are mythology or substantive. A heap of Americans (who don’t read this blog or mine…) will be hearing about beer bubbles and the “greening Earth” etc. ever more as this fight progresses (or regresses).

    Joe’s critique of my opener left out the line that explains CO2’s split personality: “The long-lived heat-trapping gas, while benign in a brew pub, is deemed a threat to public health and welfare through its growing impact on climate and, in the long run, sea levels.”

    [JR: I stand by what I wrote. The “news” was that the EPA made a proposed finding that CO2 was a threat to public health and welfare. The “CO2 is a pollutant” news was made two years ago by the Supreme Court. The fact that this was confusing to many is clear if you do the Google search I suggest and see how many people used the misleading headline. I was not critiquing Andy for the beer analogy (as some have here), which is why I omitted the third sentence.]

  25. Susan says:

    Actually, I’m Susan Anderson, and will post here as such in future. I hope someone can help me about the US CCSP (formed in 2002, a likely indicator that it IDs with Bush et al.). I don’t have the expertise to understand and deconstruct a comment that the US CCSP “proves” that we don’t have increased drought and floods, and google isn’t turning up one either. I find this altogether remarkable in the light of reality and think it might be useful to make a proper answer to it.

    Thanks for any replies.

  26. Susan Anderson says:

    Steve Bloom,

    I agree, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Trouble is I don’t have the expertise and sometimes end up with egg on my face. It’s so easy to create doubt, isn’t it. Sad.